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Leading Men in the State Legislature

LEGISLATING FOR AMERICA: For this fifth article in an occasional series on the legislative process, Robert Conot focuses on leaders of the California State Legislature.

September 07, 1986|Robert Conot | Robert Conot is an author and journalist who spent seven months studying the legislative process

THOUSAND OAKS — Theoretically, California's government seems designed to break down. A powerful Speaker of the Assembly is pitted against a powerful governor. The Legislature's rules are complex and subject to manipulation. The governor has a selective veto of the Legislature's budget. A minority of legislators in either house has the power to bring the machinery of government to a halt. In practice, nevertheless, compromise usually emerges out of conflict.

Gov. George Deukmejian's lack of visibility and the low-key approach of David A. Roberti, Senate president pro tem, have left a spotlight on Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. Though the Speaker's powers are unusually broad, they are in part the tools required for coping with a set of rules that exacerbate the difficulties of passing legislation.

Both houses operate on the principle of absolute majority: In the 80-member Assembly, 41 votes are required to pass a bill; in the 40-member Senate, 21 votes. The budget, as well as all bills containing an appropriation or an urgency clause, need a two-thirds majority for passage: 54 votes in the Assembly and 27 in the Senate. Since the minority party seldom holds fewer than one-third of the seats--the Republicans currently occupy 14 in the Senate and 33 in the Assembly--all such items require bipartisan support.

Furthermore, although the Legislature proposes, the governor disposes. Unlike the President of the United States, who has to sign or veto a whole budget, the governor has a line-item veto enabling him to excise specific appropriations. Again, since a two-thirds vote is required to override the veto, the minority is a force to be reckoned with.

With so many checks to go along with the balances, it is not surprising that the players sometimes checkmate each other--as happened during the notorious budget deadlock of 1983--or that they occasionally throw the process into turmoil, as Republicans did during the 1983-1984 session to express unhappiness over reapportionment. What is of greater note is that most of the time they are able to resolve their differences.

Much of the credit should go to Brown. Though Republicans in general consider him anathema, one need only see him dance a jig with Pat Nolan of Glendale at the Republican minority leader's Saint Patrick's Day fund-raiser to recognize how assiduously he cultivates the support of all Assembly members. "I'm a member's Speaker, first and foremost," Brown said emphatically. "Those 79 people are my constituents."

First elected in 1965, Brown, 54, is the dean of the Assembly. Representing an 86% white district--it would take more than another San Francisco earthquake to dislodge him--he has an envied freedom of action. Having seen the meager returns earned by principles, he is a consummate pragmatist. Money, of course, is necessary to travel the road of power in style--earlier in a Porsche Carrera, now in a Ferrari--and to acquire the accouterments of elegance that give him self-esteem. Legislators, juggling political ethics like high-wire artists over an abyss of suspicion, have traditionally turned their positions to profitable accounts. And Brown is a firm believer in tradition.

But money serves merely as a means. Willie Brown is the most powerful state legislator in the nation's most powerful state--and one of the most powerful black men in the land. If he hasn't sought higher office it is because he realizes the difficulties of softening his image and broadening his appeal. That does not mean that he lacks an agenda.

Although the Assembly has long had an electronic voting system, Brown is the man who pushed the Assembly, and to a certain extent the Senate with it, into the computer age. At the front of the Assembly is an electronic billboard indicating what item is under consideration. Another board carries the name of every assemblyman. A chime announces that the roll for a vote is opened. As members activate switches at their desks, the board takes on the appearance of a Christmas tree--green stars for yes votes, red stars for no votes. Atop the columns of names a digital display presents a running tally of ayes and nays.

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